Private intervention in museums can be an engine for growth and development

The relationship between the public and private sectors in museums is often a source of bitter controversy, but since museums belong to everyone, it is the responsibility of the users to contribute to their growth: here, then, is how private intervention can be an engine of development for museums.

Public museums are communities. This means that they are open to the public and that collections are displayed for the benefit of visitors, for enjoyment, education, and research. For museums owned by the state and municipalities, it is a matter of enjoyment but also of ownership. Indeed, the art collections of these institutions belong to the citizens, and public funds are used to protect them, make them usable and study them. However, when these resources are not sufficient to sustain an expanded cultural offering, museums turn to private individuals. This is only right because since museums belong to everyone, it is also the responsibility of users to contribute to their growth. The annual fundraising campaigns that solicit donations large and small in favor of museums are the mark of the concrete relationship between public and private in these institutions. It is not a matter here of seeking personal visibility or publicity for a product (giving to get) but rather of feeling civically co-responsible for the public good (giving to belong). In Italy, despite the existence of the Art Bonus mechanism, which grants the donor a 65 percent tax credit, feelings of co-responsibility, of generosity of the individual toward the community and of civic belonging are not widespread. Often museums and monuments, as well as historic gardens and parks, are seen as places distant from the responsibilities of the individual, are experienced as institutions divorced from the daily reality of citizens or at best as part of a habitual, customary and therefore uninteresting landscape.

Una sala della Galleria Estense di Modena
A room in the Galleria Estense in Modena

Widespread Philanthropy

One must question the reasons for this distance, which cannot be ascribed only to a certain disinterest on the part of citizens. Even when private donations to local cultural institutions are minimal, the majority of citizens are sincerely proud to have them in their city. The problem is rather in their limited attendance. Very often Italian museums are visited more by tourists than by residents. There is a lack of, or has yet to grow, a loyal audience such as that of museum friends associations. Those who habitually frequent the same museum are naturally more willing to feel invested and co-responsible for its welfare and development. Another important factor in establishing a fruitful relationship between museum and donors, through a wide and extensive network, is the creation of a sense of belonging. It is easy to meet people who have a particular admiration for museums. Although they may have chosen different careers in life, these people are interested in feeling part of a cultural institution. Creating opportunities for this desire to participate in museum life to be fulfilled (such as volunteering) creates the stimulus for widespread philanthropy. A museum that enjoys widespread philanthropy (whether large or small) that is open to the participation of its regular audience is a museum that best exercises the relationship between public good and private interest. The launch of the new digital platform of the Estense University Library in Modena is paradigmatic of this model. The platform was created with the technical and financial support of Fondazione Di Modena, which donated 1,300,000 euros for its implementation. For the second phase of the project, which involves the digitization of the Latin manuscripts, the museum is asking for public involvement with a crowdfunding campaign to supplement the ministerial funds already available. State, small and large benefactors, all together in support of a public benefit project.


This is not to say that other types of intervention are not commendable. Museums need vibrant cultural programming to satisfy their audiences. Making it happen is very expensive but it generates income. If most temporary events, such as exhibitions-highly marketable for their visibility-are made with third-party funds (the sponsors), the museum is able to invest in important activities for which those same marketing mechanisms are not available. Think of projects such as cataloguing, which is crucial but has little public appeal. At best, sponsorships allow the museum to offer a broad and diverse cultural offering while continuing to do research projects that are not immediately aimed at the public.

Social enterprise

Commercial activities of museums are also a source of income and an ’opportunity to bring private interests and public mission together. Often in Italy these kinds of activities, for example bookshops, are part of the activities contracted out to outside firms through concession contracts. Concessions have the advantage of freeing the administration from conducting specialized activities for which tenured museum staff are often either not trained or not present in sufficient numbers to provide an efficient service. It is a utilitarian solution, but one that does not allow the museum to cultivate and grow specific professionalism internally. Let me explain further. If Italian museums were able to manage in-house ancillary services (stores, educational activities, etc.) they would have a greater capacity to create direct spillovers to the territories they belong to. A bookshop that also sells local products through a relationship-direct or mediated as it may be-with small businesses in the area or with local artisans (including those organized in cooperatives) has a greater capacity to transform itself into a social enterprise in which the proceeds are immediately reinvested in the public good and in which the museum acts as a development pole and aggregator of different professional skills.

In Italy, the discussion of the relationship between public and private in cultural institutions often takes on bitterly polemical tones, but it is necessary to remember that private intervention in the museum can be an engine of growth and development. This happens when the museum acts in concert with a community of users who care about the fortunes of the museum, a community that the museum itself nurtures and cultivates.

This contribution was originally published in No. 8 of our print magazine Windows on Art on paper. Click here to subscribe.